October 25th, 2008

Phoning home

My mother has always loved the telephone. In the more leisurely era in which she lived most of her adult life, she touched base with about a dozen friends a day.

Not to mention the need to talk to her daughter—me—a lot. When I went away to college, I was required to phone home every Sunday, collect. And although this was back in the days when long-distance phone calls were quite expensive relative to other items, these calls were hardly short: my mother could talk. In addition, there was usually one and often two more phone call a week from her to me.

Later on when I was a young mother and phone rates had gone down, I heard from my mother at least every other day. She was intensely curious about my life, about the newest exploits of her grandson, about the news of the world, about the weather where I lived. The exchanges were usually saved from perceptions of undue prying by the fact that my mother was lively and funny, and that she had an active life herself, filled with friends and then a live-in “boyfriend” with whom she still traveled the world.

When she became very elderly and was alone again, she moved north to be near me. Always an anxious woman, she became more so, and the calls increased in frequency until they become close to a daily event or even a twice- or thrice-daily event if things were bad with her.

Now they were often about some sort of difficulty she was in. Her eyes hurt. She needed to go to the doctor. Could I please bring some bananas; she was out of them. Maybe I shouldn’t be driving in the dark, or in the rain. Certainly not in the snow. The people in the independent living facility where she lived were boring. Another lifelong friend had died.

My mother also knew that the best way to reach me by phone was to call early in the morning and wake me up. This was not done out of any desire to see me suffer; she is not a mean woman. But by trial and error she had learned that snatching me from slumber almost guaranteed her a captive audience, and I decided not to fight it.

It was all okay with me because my mother continued to be curious about my life; and to be both interested and interesting in her observations about herself, other people, and the world around her. She was perplexed by my political views, but only poked fun at me now and then about my strange defection from the obviously-correct camp of liberalism.

When my mother had her stroke three years ago things changed, even after her recovery and her move back to New York. Her memory wasn’t as good, but that wasn’t really it. If I had to put my finger on the biggest change, it consisted of two things: shockingly, she no longer initiated phone calls. And she no longer seemed particularly curious about what I was doing.

Now I call her, about every other day. Phone calls from her are rare and almost startling occasions, usually evidence that something’s wrong. Once she was distraught because she’d received a call from a convict in Louisiana (as it turned out; she hadn’t known that’s who he actually was at the outset) claiming to be a relative needing her to wire him money. Another time there was better news; she was just thanking me for a book I’d sent her. But whether good or bad, calls from her to me are now an extreme rarity.

And in what to me is a sadder development, when I phone my mother now it’s a struggle to get her to stay on the phone more than a minute. Those leisurely talks are no more.

Nor does she ask questions, except for ones that have taken on a ritual quality. When I phone, she almost always sounds very happy, but she invariably asks the same question, and in a slightly singsong voice: how are you, and where are you? She seems to want to locate me both in time and space in order to get her bearings too. There are few other questions—except that she nearly always asks after my son, her grandson—and what she does ask is almost always very general rather than specific, with no follow-up questions. And although she sounds happy enough and keeps thanking me for calling and being so thoughtful, she is clearly eager not to linger on the phone very long—and her new definition of “linger” seems to be anything more than thirty seconds.

Her motivation is certainly not to save money: in one of the few instances of true progress in our lives, long-distance phone calls are now included in her fairly low base rate of phone service. It seems, however, that as often happens with a person who has become very old (my mother is now just three months short of her ninety-fifth birthday), energy diminishes and engagement with the world (even the world of those one loves) fades.

I get the impression it’s all rather distant to her. She wants to get back to the book she’s reading, which is much more immediate. She lives far more in the present than she ever did before, and if the present isn’t all that exciting and stimulating, at least she’s (according to her report) “content.” “I can’t complain” is another mantra, although recently there was a flash of her old sense of humor when she added, “Well, I could, but I won’t.”

It’s okay; I’m not really complaining, either. Although she’s got memory problems, so far we’ve been spared (knock wood) real senility, such as the horror of the steady loss of memory and personality that is Alzheimer’s. My mother is still very recognizably herself, just a far less talkative version of herself. And in an odd but welcome twist, the fact that she now lives in a very controlled environment seems to have damped down her lifelong anxiety; she’s never been keen on surprises.

Another benefit is the fact that I no longer get those almost-daily wakeup calls. It’s funny, though; I almost miss them.

16 Responses to “Phoning home”

  1. Kurt Says:

    Your frequency of calls sounds rather like mine. When I went off to college (in the mid-80s), I started a ritual of calling my parents once a week, usually on Sundays (and at the time, usually collect). I started that partly because at the time, my mother called my grandmother about once a week, so I figured that was a good frequency for calling. My father’s health declined a lot starting five or six years ago, and eventually he went to an assisted living place to live. Then I started calling a little more frequently. After he passed away last year, I called daily for a while, and now it’s around every other day on average.

  2. expat Says:

    We’ve just had a roller coaster week with my 93-year-old mother-in-law. It’s now looking like she will recover from her pneumonia, but it really is hard to sort out all the emotions you go through. Her world, never very broad to begin with, has narrowed further, and it seems every conversation is the same. Still I keep trying to think of little things that might brighten her day, but my ideas are dwindling. It is a difficult time.

  3. Perfected democrat Says:

    My father is 3 months shy of 96, now in assisted living, though in relatively incredible shape for his age. I call him everyday, except days when we go out for dinner or lunch, average about 10 a month. It used to seem like way too much, but now I see it as only about 2 1//2 hrs…., not so bad, because in a not long while it will all only be memory… In any case, among the books, publications, and videos which I steer him almost every visit, I think the courses from the Teaching Company are exceptional. He used to talk about being interested in physics and science, but didn’t seem to know where to start on his own. They aren’t dirt cheap, but if you buy them when they’re on sale, not bad, I’ll watch them later, then give them away (though actually I’ve spent a fortune on the literature courses for myself). For my father it’s been a bit like going back to school, and been remarkably therapeutic for him (and as a result, for me). Check it out: http://www.TEACH12.com

  4. dane Says:

    Neo squared,

    the first thing I have to say is I am truly happy you have had a good relationship with your Mother over the years. Life is an odd thing in so many ways. In respect to situations like this when our lives are filled to the brim with work, raising children, etc. we don’t have the time to be engaged to the extent we would like with our parents. Then when our time frees up as children grow and leave our parents are often not able to be engaged the way we would like.

    I’m happy for both of you and your Mother that she at least now seems to be content.

  5. br549 Says:

    My mom and dad have been gone a very long time. At 56, I am a grandfather myself. I was 18 (she died young) when my mom died, and 37 when my dad died. I’d give just about anything to be able to talk again with either of them, still.

  6. michaele Says:

    Intersting observations …made me do a little thinking. I’m a 60 year old woman who always enjoyed a great phone relationship with my mother. It was only during the last pain filled month of her life that conversation did not flow easily. I didn’t avoid the reality that her pain was all consuming and I would “name it” and say I was just so sorry she had to be suffering. She had always prided herself on being plucky and uncomplaining but the darned pain made us both quiet in humble acknowledgement of it’s power.
    One other thing to share…in spite of our great telephone comraderie, I ofter felt sufficated by her presence when we had an in person visit. That always dismayed me.

  7. Tim P Says:

    That was a very nice post about your mother. I hope you get to share many more moments with her before her time comes. Cherish them.

  8. Foxfier Says:


  9. Cappy Says:

    It’s a blessing to have a close relationship with your parents into their old age. My mother passed away three years ago at age 89, and I still miss talking to her.

  10. jakad Says:

    What a wonderful piece of writing. It really touched me.

  11. Webutante Says:

    My mother died over 35 years ago at 51 and so I envy even the changes you’re going through with having to call her now. How fortunate you are to still have her.

  12. spoot Says:

    Sounds like you are missing your Mom. We all carry an image of our Mom in our heads, created from childhood and preserved and re-affirmed through continuous interactions in life between Mother and daughter. Both sides want and need this relationship to endure and both protect and preserve it.

    But your Mom suffered a brain injury and as a result her mind has been subtly altered. Perhaps that role and persona she had with you was partially lost or damaged and so she can no longer respond to those old cues and memories that used to feed the bond between you.

    But in your brain that reservoir of memories and responses still feeds you dailly and it hurts to get no feedback from her.

    It is a strange thing to lose the role of child to one’s parent and instead become the parent to the child.

    I had to nurse my Mom through terminal cancer and when she died I was terribly grief stricken. It was the loss of my Mother, the mother inside me, that I missed so much. It was the realization of being on my own, without a Mother to watch out for me and nurture me, that was the hardest adjustment.

    When my Dad slipped into dementia, it was not so hard for me. I had already moved away from being the Child and had no adjustments to make when I became my Dad’s caregiver.
    No, a slight correction, there was some adjustments, I did feel it was unfair that I had to care for my Dad, because he had not been the best Dad in the world but my husband made me see that that was not important. The important thing was was doing the right thing because he needed me.

  13. Mel Williams Says:

    Beautiful thoughts, Neo.

    At 54 and a late father, I’m in the position to see my 2 and 6 year olds develope and my 79 year old mother just recently crest the hill.

    The comparison is interesting to me. Babies’ little world expands as their nervous system matures to make it possible. At first their world is in their own skin, then sensory, then eyesight expands focus, etc. They gain confidence and competence as they mature.

    My mother is in very good shape and health, more energy than me, but a failed cataract surgery has left her with somewhat poor eyesight (she can still read, but does so in sunlight). I’ve noticed she has slipped some. Until this last year she never misplaced things or showed any clumsiness. But what would one expect?

    But she has lost some of her self-confidence in everyday things. Like driving unfamiliar routes, or anything to do with visual recognition. And I’m guessing that her world will continue to shrink a little in the coming years.

    My point in this comparison – I think the opposite happens at each end of life, and physiology plays a role. As peripheral vision and hearing fade, the world literally shrinks for our elders. And it’s probably true to some degree for all of the senses. I’m sure a good attitude towards life, a feeling of being needed and loved, of engagement with the world, are very important in keeping a brain that probably processes less stimuli than in younger people operating sharply.

  14. The New Centrist Says:

    You convinced me to call my mom. She calls every weekend but it’s been a few weeks since I gave her a call. Thanks.

  15. Tertium Quid Says:

    Great story. I am watching my own mother change. She has lost her energy but strangely has gained a contentment she never had before. I miss that energy even if I don’t miss arguing over the piddling things she liked to fight about.

  16. Henry Bowman Says:

    My wife’s mother, who lived in Chicago until she moved over a thousand miles to live close to us in New Mexico, also called every day. She passed away December last year, suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last [at least] 10-15 years of her life. Especially after she moved close to us, she called every evening. Eventually she quit calling, which we soon realized was due to the fact that she couldn’t remember how to dial the phone. Her decline was long and very difficult for all, including her, of course. I hope you and your mother have a better experience.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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